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November/ December 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 8

Surviving The Back To School Blues
Part II: Identifying and Working with Disabilities

Often times some of the struggles our kids suffer from in school is that of unidentified or misidentified learning disabilities or emotional disturbances that seriously affect their ability to participate in the classroom. Understanding more about learning styles, learning disabilities and how to help children to develop better study habits can relieve stress and improve their self-esteem as well as their attitude about school.

Learning Disabilities
From A Fact Sheet Provided by NICHCY:
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1999

Definition of Learning Disabilities

The regulations for Public Law (P.L) 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), define a learning disability as a "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological process involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations."

The Federal definition further states that learning disabilities include "such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia" According to the law, learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. Definitions of learning disabilities also vary among states.

Having a single term to describe this category of children with disabilities reduces some of the confusion, but there are many conflicting theories about what causes learning disabilities and how many there are. The label "learning disabilities" is all-embracing; it describes a syndrome, not a specific child with specific problems. The definition assists in classifying children, not teaching them. Parents and teachers need to concentrate on the individual child. They need to observe both how and how well the child performs, to assess strengths and weaknesses, and develop ways to help overlapping among the areas of learning. Therefore, children with learning disabilities may exhibit a combination of characteristics.

These problems may mildly, moderately, or severely impair the learning process.


Many different estimates for the number of children with learning disabilities have appeared in the literature (ranging from 1% to 30% of the general population). In 1987, the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities concluded that 5% to 10% is a reasonable estimate of the percentage of persons affected by learning disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education (1998) reported that more than 5% of all school-aged children received special education services for learning disabilities and that in the 1996-97 school year over 2.6 million children with learning disabilities were served. Differences in estimates perhaps reflect variations in the definition.


Learning disabilities are characterized by a significant difference in the child's achievement in some areas, as compared to his or her overall intelligence.

Students who have learning disabilities may exhibit a wide range of traits, including problems with reading comprehension, spoken language, writing, or reasoning ability. Hyperactivity, inattention, and perceptual coordination problems may also be associated with learning disabilities. Other traits that may be present include a variety of symptoms, such as uneven and unpredictable test performance, perceptual impairments, motor disorders, and behaviors such as impulsiveness, low tolerance for frustration, and problems in handling day -to-day social interactions and situation.

Learning disabilities may occur in the following academic areas:

  • Spoken language: Delays, disorders, or discrepancies in listening and speaking;
  • Written language: Difficulties with reading, writing, and spelling;
  • Arithmetic: Difficulty in performing arithmetic functions or in comprehending basic concepts;
  • Reasoning: Difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts; and
  • Organization skills: Difficulty in organizing al facets of learning.

Educational Implications

Because learning disabilities are manifested in a variety of behavior patterns, the Individual Education Program (IEP) mus be designed carefully. A team approach is important for educating the child with a learning disability, beginning with the assessment process and continuing through the development of the IEP. Close collaboration among special class teachers, parents, resource room teachers, regular class teachers, and others will facilitate the overall development of a child with learning disabilities.

Some teachers report that the following strategies have been effective with some student who have learning disabilities:

  • Capitalize on the student's strengths;
  • Provide high structure and clear expectation;
  • Use short sentences a simple vocabulary;
  • Provide opportunities for success in a supportive atmosphere to help build self-esteem;
  • Allow flexibility in classroom procedures (e.g., allowing the use of tape recorders for note-taking and test-taking when student have trouble with written language);
  • Make use of self-correcting materials, which provide immediate feedback without embarrassment;
  • Use computers for drill and practice and teaching word processing;
  • Provide positive reinforcement of appropriate social skills at school and home: and
  • Recognize that students with learning disabilities can greatly benefit from the gift of time to grow and mature.

Fact Sheet Number 7 (FS7), 1999

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Emotional Disturbance
From A Fact Sheet Provided by NICHCY:
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1999

Definition Of Emotional Disturbance

Many terms are used to describe emotional, behavioral or mental disorders. Currently, students with such disorders are categorized as having a serious emotional disturbance, which is defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as follows:

"...a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects educational performance ..."

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems." [Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]

As defined by the IDEA, serious emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have a serious emotional disturbance. [Code of Federal Regulation, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]

It is important to know that the Federal government is currently reviewing the way in which serious emotional disturbance is defined and that the definition may be revised.


For the 1996-97 school year, 447,426 children and youth with a serious emotional disturbance were provided services in the public schools (Twentieth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 1998).


The causes of emotional disturbance have not been adequately determined. Although various factors such as heredity, brain disorder, diet, stress, and family functioning have been suggested as possible causes, research has not shown any of these factors to be the direct cause of behavior problems. Some of the characteristics and behaviors seen in children who have emotional disturbances include:

  1. Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness);
  2. Aggression/self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting);
  3. Withdrawal (failure to initiate interaction with others; retreat from exchanges of social interaction, excessive fear or anxiety);
  4. Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and
  5. Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level).

Children with the most serious emotional disturbances may exhibit distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, bizarre motor acts, and abnormal mood swings and are sometimes identified as children who have a severe psychosis or schizophrenia.

Many children who do not have emotional disturbances may display some of these same behaviors at various times during their development. However, when children have serious emotional disturbances, these behaviors continue over long periods of time. Their behavior thus signals that they are not coping with their environment or peers.

Behavior modification is one of the most widely used approaches to helping children with a serious emotional disturbance. However, there are many other techniques that are also successful and may be used in combination with behavior modification. Life Space Intervention and Conflict Resolution are two such techniques.

Students eligible for special education services under the category of serious emotional disturbance may have IEPs that include psychological or counseling services as a related service. This is an important related service which is available under the law and is to be provided by a qualified social worker, psychologist, guidance counselor, or other qualified personnel.

There is growing recognition that families, as well as their children, need support, respite care, intensive case management services, and multi-agency treatment plan. Many communities are working toward providing these wrap-around services, and there are a growing number of agencies and organizations actively involved in establishing support services in the community. Parent support groups are also important, and organizations such as the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) have parent representatives and groups in every state. Both of these organizations are listed under the resource section of this fact sheet.

Other Considerations

Families of children with emotional disturbances may need help in understanding their children's condition and in learning how to work effectively with them. Help is available from psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health professionals in public or private mental health settings.

Children should be provided services based on their individual needs, and all persons who are involved with these children should be aware of the care they are receiving. It is important to coordinate all services between home, school, and therapeutic community with open communication.

Fact Sheet Number 5 (FS5), 1999

This information is in the public domain unless otherwise indicated. Readers are encouraged to copy and share it, but please credit the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY).

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities - P.O. Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013; 1-800-695-0285 (Voice/TTY) 

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Editors Note To Co-Parents:

The facts presented in Part II of our feature, Surviving the Back To School Blues, are meant to be preliminary stages in educating yourself on the issues and concerns that are a part of working with children and their disabilities.

Working with the school system can often be frustrating and discouraging. More so if you believe that your child is not receiving needed services. But with determination and persistence your voice will be heard.

It is important to keep your lines of communication flowing between you and your Treatment Coordinator. If you are concerned about the status of your foster child(ren) and their school placement or education plan, voice those concerns. You are an integral part of the treatment plan for the children in your care.

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